Over a decade ago I first had the privilege of visiting the early Christian sanctuary tucked into a corner of the forum below the imposing cliff-like ruins of the imperial palaces. In addition to containing a rare collection of wall paintings spanning the 6th – late 8th centuries, this is an interesting example of adaptive reuse of a pagan structure into a church, made all the better by the fact that its burial under the Palatine hill in the 9th century effectively preserved it for a thousand years.
In 2004 the organization I had co-founded had teamed up with archaeologists from Stanford and Oxford Universities to excavate nearby. In our down time, the chief restoration specialist working on Santa Maria Antiqua generously took to to illustrate the process of uncovering and protecting the frescoes. The site was off limits to the public but we brought interested possible benefactors (including Bill Gates senior and his wife Mimi) to visit it when it was under scaffolding. And just outside, in the shadows of the Palatine, we did our pot-washing.
This summer the site has been opened to the public as part of ones visit to the Forum. The restoration has been completed and is spectacular, augmented by high-tech visual aids, digital reconstructions projected tastefully onto the walls of the monument to help visualize the various phases. The exhibit is scheduled to close in September, but many hope that it will be extended since it has been such a great success.
For those interested in exploring other such sites, I am working closely with Dora Cirone, the Italian archaeologist who we teamed up with back then and many times since, on a project in the nearby Horrea Agrippiana where we have just received permission to excavate. If you are interested in our field school starting next summer, drop me a line.